Combat, With Limits, Looms for Hybrid Aircraft
By LESLIE WAYNE, New York Times
Published: April 14, 2007
The Marine Corps said yesterday that the V-22 Osprey, a hybrid aircraft with a troubled past, will be sent to Iraq this September, where it will see combat for the first time.more here
But because of a checkered safety record in test flights, the V-22 will be kept on a short leash.
The Pentagon has placed so many restrictions on how it can be used in combat that the plane — which is able to drop troops into battle like a helicopter and then speed away from danger like an airplane — could have difficulty fulfilling the Marines’ longstanding mission for it.
In Iraq, the V-22 will begin to replace the Vietnam-era helicopters that are increasingly facing enemy fire. The limitations on the V-22, which cost $80 million apiece, mean it cannot evade enemy fire with the same maneuvers and sharp turns used by helicopter pilots.
As a result, the craft could be more vulnerable to attack, and may result in the Marines keeping it out of the thick of battle, using it instead for less dangerous tasks.
“They will plan their missions in Iraq to avoid it getting into areas where there are serious threats,” said Thomas Christie, the Pentagon’s director of operations, test and evaluation from 2001 to 2005, who is now retired. The V-22’s debut in combatends a remarkable 25-year struggle for the Marines to build a craft they could call their own.
In announcing the Iraq deployment yesterday, Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps’ commandant, referred to those efforts as “a road marked by some setbacks, lots of sacrifices and the success of these Marines standing before you.”
The V-22 has been the Marines’ top priority — the Pentagon has spent $20 billion so far and has budgeted $54.6 billion for it. The money has bought a craft that is half-helicopter, half-airplane and whose speed, say the Marines, will save lives.
But the V-22 has also suffered some of the deadliest test crashes in Marine history. It has claimed 30 lives, 26 of them marines, in three test flight crashes. A fourth V-22 crashed, but there were no deaths then. Many more have been damaged in lesser incidents involving fires, stalled engines and software glitches.
Critics say the V-22’s unusual design can create deadly problems that the Marines have minimized in their single-minded pursuit of the craft.
“It’s like a bad poker hand, and the Marines have been investing in it for 20 years,” said Philip Coyle, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester from 1994 to 2001. “They might have been better if they invested in brand new helicopters.”